Home Articles About Chartist Subscribe Links Search
This month
Archive of past articles
Labour movement
British politics
International politics
Economy and society
Science and culture

Busy Going Nowhere

After three years New Labour has failed to deliver even its limited promises. Pete Smith asks why the caution with such a hefty majority?

The English summer is a difficult period for politicians in general and governments in particular. As much of a challenge, or a greater one, as it is for people who take their holidays at home. You get your tan from standing in the English rain. The 'silly season', the dog day afternoons when all the papers have different 'stories' on their front pages, which, of course, means that there are no stories. Not much chance for politicians to grandstand on big issues (or even on small ones, if we think fourteen pints of beer a day is small).

After Blair's problems with the Womens' Institute in the early summer he ran into further problems with people, who had been thought to be, at the heart of 'New' Labour expressing doubts.

Even Ken Follett, who was so much part of the charmed circle of the Blairite tendency was expressing his doubts. Who can forget that heart stopping moment on election night in 1997 when it seemed, as the television pictures came in from Harlow, that horror of horrors, the Folletts were not going to be able to get their champagne open?

The false dichotomy between the 'heartlands' and 'middle England' has surely, by now, been exposed as the nonsense that it is. People in Liverpool and Wimbledon voted Labour in 1997 not because of their similar life histories but because they wanted to draw a line under what had gone before and start a new chapter. It seems as though starting a new tale is more difficult than it appeared to be back in the days when any victory over the Thatcher/Major hegemony looked like a break in the clouds.

Most on the left have not been disillusioned, mainly because they did not have any illusions in the first place. The record of previous Labour governments has never been a happy one (with the exception of the Attlee government's domestic policies post-1945). Many who supported the broad sweep of the modernisation of the Labour Party in the 1980s and early 1990s must now feel tricked, fooled, deceived and humiliated. That includes me. Of course we always knew the truth. If you buy a Rolex watch from a stall in a shop doorway it cannot be a 'Rolex', whatever you would like to think. 'New' Labour was always going to be a fraud, a pretence, smoke and mirrors. Pretending to be a break with the past but actually proving to be a continuation of it. The historian Eric Hobsbawm has hit the spot when he calls Blair "Thatcher in trousers". Yet there was no reason why it needed to be like this.

In May 1997 popular feeling was for change not more of the same. This feeling came from ordinary people, whether the 'core' voters of the traditional Labour base amongst the manual working class and the non-working poor, or the big sections of middle class people (particularly in the public sector) who had just had enough in those last years of the Thatcherite experiment in permanent revolution. 'New' Labour has failed to deliver in its first three years. That is the blunt fact of the matter. Are secondary school classes smaller? Are hospital waiting lists shorter? Do we have a more compassionate society where the weak and the vulnerable are given more chances? To ask these questions is to answer them.

'New' Labour had its chance. A massive parliamentary majority which had given it a mandate in almost all parts of the country, apart from the most true blue reservations of the rich. Here, surely, was the chance for radical action. No, of course, caution had to be the watch word. The NHS, schools, universities and public transport needed to be starved of adequate funding in order to prove that Blair and Brown had put 'responsible' into the extended title of 'New' Labour. How many times have we heard the apologists for what has happened over the last three years explain that it is only the first term and the important thing is to win a second term and then the real changes can begin. Hang on, you cannot make big changes with a majority of 179 but you will be able to when that majority has been reduced to 70 or 30. I should coco.

The 'New' Labour machine has been revealed as very bad at almost the only thing it could base its legitimacy on, winning elections. Let us just face up to it, at the ballot box 'New' Labour is rubbish. The voters do not turn out and the cynicism which afflicted the British public in the run up to the 1997 election is being repeated in spades. We can, perhaps, forgive the people who have made a life out of being on the 'correct' side of the argument in the Labour Party in the 1970s and 1980s. God might forgive them, but I cannot. People who banged the left-wing drum and then wanted places of power and privilege. Apparently it really does suit the meek and base.

The truth is that the opportunities have been squandered. Ministers spinning against each other through their aides and favoured journalists is only the half of it. These people are so shallow that in a leaked letter Blair described Brown and Mandelson as "two of the greatest minds of their generation". Tony, you must get out more. They just do not seem to inhabit the world I know. I guess that Blair does not talk to people at the Tesco meat counter or at the plant section in Homebase. My own little focus group was when I was shut up in a hospital ward with a broken ankle and had a random collection of fracture victims tell me what they thought of 'New' Labour in power. It was not good. As for talking to people at work, well most of us are not employed in an environment where everyone wants to prove to us that they love and admire us more than the next person on the ladder of flattery and toadying. The other worldly nature of the lives that they lead is astonishing. A politician who has lost contact with reality is never a pretty sight. Apparently pride comes before a fall and there is no shortage of hubris amongst the present administration. The saga of the leaked memos is but emblematic of the government's problems. Though why anyone would want to leak a Philip Gould memo rather than using it for a more appropriate purpose is beyond me.

In Tay Garnett's 1949 movie A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court the stand-out scene is when the three stars, Bing Crosby, William Bendix and Cedric Hardwicke sing a song which has the following opening verses:

"We're busy doing nothing
working the whole day through
trying to find lots of things not to do.
We're busy going nowhere, isn't just a crime?
We'd like to be unhappy but . we never do have the time."

Perhaps at Labour's conference this ditty could replace The Red Flag and Auld Lang Syne, since the words are easy to remember it would save all that embarrassing mumbling on the platform. Well, it would be wrong to say that the present government has been busy doing nothing. On the contrary it has been doing the wrong things. Single parent benefits, pensions, student finance, disability living allowance, asylum seekers, air traffic control, the London Underground and the future of the Royal Mail - all wrong. But there is a mean spirit that pervades the decisions taken. With their pinched faces and stupid grins what they are really saying is that Thatcher was right and that any attempt to found a society on just and humane principles is a chimera, a fantasy, the illusions of schoolchildren, not the stuff of adult discourse.

Of course some individual Labour MPs have been "busy doing nothing" except, as W. S. Gilbert put it they have "always voted at my party's call and never thought of thinking for myself at all". We might assume that many of these will be seeking alternative forms of employment after the next election. It is like filling in the winning numbers on the lottery ticket and then, when you get to the counter, buying a Mars bar instead. Of course with a majority of 179 being whipped to vote in divisions is a bit like being busy doing nothing, particularly when the majority is, apparently, not big enough to ensure simple things like a ban on hunting with hounds.

The more important point is that the government and, by implication, the whole 'New' Labour, grandly titled, project has been busy going nowhere. But actually we know where. A second term with a reduced majority. Problems piling up as disgruntled former ministers begin to congregate on the backbenches. Pledges on class sizes, hospital waiting lists and access to higher education broken, as they must be, even if there were to be a change of direction tomorrow. Voters turn away, or simply stay at home, not just in the heartlands but in the suburbs and small towns where people wanted, and expected, better. We can imagine the consequences, not just the defeat of the party, but a melt-down, a civil war more vicious than anything we experienced in the early 1980s. I am actually in favour of witch hunts when there are real witches.

Of course this has all happened before. In George Dangerfield's classic work of 1936, The Strange Death of Liberal England, a work which Tony Blair is apparently familiar with, the opening chapter outlines the struggles and conflicts which threatened to tear apart Edwardian Britain. The confrontation between the Commons and the Lords, Home Rule for Ireland and the Ulster question, industrial unrest and votes for women. During this time of trouble the Liberals, in 1906, scored their greatest election victory, indeed one of the greatest election victories of all time. But as Dangerfield relates, "From that victory they never recovered."

September/October 2000